James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, the haunted, all-too-human homicide detective from the Louisiana bayou country, first appeared more than 25 years ago in “The Neon Rain.” It was apparent, even then, that Burke had given us an extraordinary character, one whose depth, complexity and evocative narrative voice was worth returning to again and again. That has turned out to be the case. “Light of the World” is the 20th installment in this increasingly ambitious series, and it reaffirms Robicheaux’s status as one of the most successfully sustained creations in contemporary crime fiction.
There are, of course, many reasons for the ongoing popularity of these books, but the character of Robicheaux — a man who has confronted more demons than the Catholic Church — remains chief among them. To begin with, his parents both died under violent circumstances. His second wife, Annie, was murdered in her bed by professional hit men. He is a recovering alcoholic for whom drinking remains an abiding and powerful temptation. He carries with him the physical and mental scars from a harrowing tour of duty in Vietnam, is subject to recurring bouts of depression and rage, and struggles with his capacity for violence. At the same time, he is a man of courage, compassion and enormous decency who believes that the world, corrupt as it may be, is a place worth fighting for. He is deeply attuned to the cyclical rhythms of the natural world (Burke’s descriptions of the Louisiana landscape are among the finest examples of nature writing in recent American fiction), and he is equally attuned to an invisible realm that lies just beyond our own. He tells us, at one point, that “I have always loved and welcomed the rain, even though sometimes the spirits of the dead visit me inside it.” These spirits include his personal dead and the ghosts of the nation’s bloody, unresolved history.
“Light of the World” opens on an unexpected change of venue. On the heels of the near-lethal events recounted in “The Glass Rainbow” and “Creole Belle,” Robicheaux has retreated to the mountainous region near Missoula, Mont., accompanied by his wife, Molly, his adopted daughter, Alafair, and his former homicide partner, Clete Purcel, whose personal demons may outnumber Robicheaux’s. Joining them is Clete’s recently discovered daughter, a former contract killer hoping to create a new life as a documentary filmmaker. They have come to Montana in search of solitude, peace and a place to heal. They are not going to find what they’re looking for.
As the story begins, Alafair is jogging along a mountain path when an unknown assailant nearly kills her with an arrow. Minutes later, she identifies the man she believes to be the culprit: Wyatt Dixon, a former rodeo champion and convicted felon who first appeared in Burke’s 2001 novel “Bitterroot.” Wyatt, however, is not the only potential suspect in the vicinity. Asa Surrette, a notorious serial killer and sexual sadist who supposedly died in a fiery automobile crash, may have survived and found his way to Montana. Surrette has a bottomless capacity for evil, and he has harbored a long-standing grudge against Alafair. The search for Surrette, which stands at the novel’s center, widens to encompass a related series of abductions and murders that involves both Surrette and the family of a wealthy oil baron, an exemplar of the corporate profiteers who have helped lay waste to a formerly pristine environment.
What follows is an intense account of murder and retribution in which virtually every character, major and minor, pays a significant price. More, perhaps, than any of Burke’s other novels, “Light of the World” is concerned with the irresolvable problem of evil, as practiced on both the corporate and personal levels. Surrette, who may be something more or less than merely human and who gives off the unmistakable — and quite literal — stench of corruption, is a chilling creation, the embodiment of a world without sane limits. He is a fitting antagonist for Robicheaux, a flawed but genuine hero who persists, against all odds, in fighting the good fight. Together they lend visceral excitement and moral urgency to the latest, largest entry in a deeply personal series that continues to address the biggest questions and to illuminate the darkest corners of human behavior.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
LIGHT OF THE WORLD
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster. 548 pp. $27.99